THE SPACE PAGE: ALL ABOUT SPACES
Just about everything you need to know in order to recognize and utilize the material used for spacing within a line of metal type.
latest update: 10/14/16. posted: 9/24/16
SPACES & QUADS—BASICS
Spaces and quads are the material, of the same point size as the type being set, that is used for space within text (mainly word spacing), and for the blank space before and after text on the same line as the text (such as paragraph indents and space after the short lines at the end of a paragraph).
It’s “spaces,” not “spacers.”
The basic unit of spacing is the “em”. An em makes a visual space that is a square of a given point size. (See “What It’s All About: Proportional Spacing” and “Em Quad,” below.)
Physically, a 12-point em space (for instance) is a piece of metal a bit more than three quarters of an inch long, and 12 points on each of the two short sides.
Spaces are sized in fractions of an em or multiples of an em. (The only notable exceptions are for the very thinnest spaces, made of brass and copper. These are always one point and one-half point thick, respectively.)
A distinction is traditionally drawn between “spaces,” in the strict sense, and “quads.” However, spaces and quads can be referred to collectively as “spaces.” (“Spacing material” would serve as a more rigorous collective or generic term.)
You don’t have to worry too much about always using the right term. However, the space/quad distinction has a certain rationale (discussed below), and it’s firmly established in typographic usage and literature, so you definitely need to be familiar with it.
Spaces, in the strict sense, are the ones used within text: This includes the smaller fractional spaces: 3-to-em, 4-to-em, 5-to-em. Fractional spaces smaller than 5-to-em also exist; they are used mainly for large type.
“Spaces” also includes brass and copper spaces, which are not fractions of an em: a brass space is always one point thick, a copper always a half point.
It’s always 3-to-em, 4-to-em, and so on, for spaces. There are three of them (and so on) to an em. If you just say “3-em,” or even “3-em space,” it will make people wonder if you are referring to a quad three ems in width, and clarification will always be required.
Quads are en (= half an em), em, 2-em, and 3-em. The latter two are 2 ems and 3 ems wide, respectively. (“Quad” is a shortened form of “quadrat.”)
It’s handy for communication to be able to make a concise but clearly audible distinction between a 3-to-em space and a 3-em quad.
One likely reason why printers maintained a distinction between “spaces” and “quads” is that it lets us think, and do arithmetic, in terms of the same simple numbers (2, 3, etc.) both for multiples of an em and for fractions of an em, while allowing for a terminological distinction between multiples of an em and fractions of an em. This is useful for a proportional spacing system (below). But the en quad is a problem for this, since it, too, is a fraction of an em (one half).
The following may help you remember which are quads: A possible psychological basis for the distinction, and for the term “quad,” is that an en (half a square), em (square) and larger quads are easily thought of in terms of their shape, which is rectangular (quadrate), with simple ratios between the sides, ratios which are easily discerned since the dimensions are larger. Smaller pieces are easier to think of in terms of width—it takes practice to recognize them by shape, especially 4-to-em and smaller spaces.
WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT: PROPORTIONAL SPACING
The essence of typographic spacing is that it is proportional. This makes it easy to keep spacing in proportion to type size—a critical aspect of typographic aesthetics. The traditional spacing system allows us to take proportionality for granted, because it’s physically built into the system.
Another way of saying this is that the size of spaces (em, en, etc.) is relative to the point size.
Proportional spacing also allows us to use the same terms, and the same rules of thumb, for spacing all sizes of type. Thus, instead of having to remember that the typical word space for, say, 10-point type is 2.5 to 3.3 points, and then remember other numbers for other type sizes, one only has to remember that the best word space is usually a 3-to-em or 4-to-em space. Similarly, paragraph indents are thought of in ems, because these too should be proportional to the type size.
The common widths of spaces and quads are described below, with important notes on their use. Farther on are descriptions of some other types of spacing material you may run into occasionally.
SPACES & QUADS—
STANDARD WIDTHS AND THEIR USES
A quad that is three ems wide. Used in quantity for spacing to width after short lines of type, as at the end of a paragraph or a short line of poetry. Also used for indenting blocks of type, and for other miscellaneous occasions.
A quad that is two ems wide. Used for spacing out after short lines of type, when there is no room left for 3-em quads. Also used for indenting blocks of type, and for other miscellaneous occasions.
An em is a square of the body size (the dimension in points measured from top to bottom, usually the same as the nominal point size of a given font). For example, viewed from the top, as in the diagram above, an em at 12-point is a square 12 points on a side. An em at 36-point is a square 36 points on a side.
The em quad is used as a component of paragraph indents, and in other situations where a consistent proportional space larger than a word space is needed (as in tables, hanging indents). Also for one-off use in filling space at the end of a short line when larger quads are too big.
See also “More About Ems and Ens,” below, for some other questions that come up about the terms and their definitions.
An en is half an em. Like the em, the en space is used as a component of paragraph indents, and in in other situations where a consistent proportional space larger than a word space is needed (e.g., tables, hanging indents). Also for one-off use in filling space at the end of a short line when larger quads are too big.
En quads are used occasionally as wide word spaces—for instance, in letterspaced heads, or, in extreme cases, in justified body text.
In many text fonts, both metal and digital, the widths of the figures (numbers) are set uniformly at one en, so as to facilitate setting tabular matter. In such contexts, the width of an en may be referred to as a “figure space.” (OpenType font technology now makes it possible create fonts that allow a choice between tabular and proportional widths for figures.)
See also “More About Ems and Ens,” below, for some other questions that come up about the terms and their definitions.
The typical word space, though it may be too wide for, e.g., condensed faces or large type. Narrower spaces may also be preferable where the word space is preceded or followed by punctuation, or by a letter whose shape leaves much extra visual space next to the word space.
Also for one-off use in filling space at the end of a short line when quads are too big.
Used as a thinner word space (in tight lines, condensed type, or after punctuation, or before/after letters with open space next to the word space.
Also for one-off use in filling space at the end of a short line when larger spaces are too big.
Used as a thinner word space, especially after punctuation, or before/after letters with open space next to the word space; probably most appropriate for these uses in tight lines or with condensed type, or in large sizes.
Also for one-off use in filling space at the end of a short line when larger spaces are too big.
6-TO-EM SPACE (AND SMALLER FRACTIONS OF AN EM)
Probably found only in larger point sizes. In these sizes, and especially in tight lines or with condensed type, might be used as a thinner word space, especially after punctuation, or before/after letters with open space next to word space.
Also for one-off use in filling space at the end of a short line when larger spaces are too big.
At small sizes, it is impractical and unnecessary to use fractions of an em smaller than one fifth. A 6-to-em space at 12 points is 2 points thick; at 6 points, it is one point thick, which is the thickness of a brass space regardless of point size.
For fine spacing with large sizes of type, spaces in smaller fractions of an em (e.g., 8-to-em) were also made, as were 2-point lead spaces. One- and two-point leads can also be cut to size for spacing, with care and perhaps some trimming, to ensure that the leads are not bent and there is no burr on the edge, which would make the fit less secure. See also “Spaces & Quads—Other Widths,” below.)
BRASS SPACE (1 point thick)
Handle them with care to avoid bending them. They may not be replaceable. They should not be used when the same result can be obtained by replacing a previously set space with a slightly larger space. (For example, by replacing a 5-to-em space with a 4-to-em space.) You shouldn’t often have to use more than one or two brass or copper spaces in a line.
Don’t use if bent: bent spaces are like springs, so a line may feel tight enough in the composing stick but won’t be as tight as the other lines when the type is locked up, so letters may fall out or be picked up by inked rollers.
COPPER SPACE (1/2 point thick)
Use as for Brass Spaces, above.
TELLING THEM APART
4-to-em and 5-to-em spaces often get mixed up. Complicating matters are all the oddball-sized thin spaces that were distributed from Monotype settings instead of being put in the hellbox where they belong. (See “Odd Monotype Spaces,” below.)
Five 5-to-em spaces side by side make a square, and so forth. You can check the square against an em space, but it’s pretty easy to see if it’s a square or not.
When sorting out a bunch of spaces, it’s usually easy enough to see if one space is wider than another if you hold a bunch of them side by side between your thumb and forefinger. (It’s not so easy if the spaces are worn or dirty.)
Another method is to have spaces of known widths on a clean, flat surface, and check unknown spaces against them by putting them side by side with the narrow sides butting: you can feel any difference by running your fingers across the butting edges.
Storage for spacing material is not, and never was, quite as simple a matter as one might think.
Traditionally, spaces were kept in two standard locations:
1) In long cases above the type cabinets. (You can see these in the picture at the top of the main Composing Room page. Type was normally set right there at the cabinet, as in the picture.) Each case had sections for spaces in all the standard text sizes and the smaller display sizes, typically 6-, 8-, 10-, 12-, 14-, 18-, 24-, 30-, and 36-point. For each size, there were boxes for spaces and quads in the standard fractions/multiples of an em: 5-to-em, 4-to-em, 3-to-em, en, em, 2-em, and 3-em.
2) In a standard job case there are boxes assigned to all the spaces from 3-em quads down through 5-to-em spaces. These boxes are around the edges of the lower-case sections—see a case-lay diagram.
More than this is clearly needed: space cases and job cases had no boxes for copper and brass spaces, or for spaces smaller than 5-to-em. For the largest display sizes, there would often be no place in the long space cases, while the space boxes in type cases would fit only a small supply of the larger spaces and quads. And it may often be handy to have a portable assortment of spaces—particularly for correcting type in the form (on the stone or on press), a common part of shop production.
Furthermore, for various reasons, it might be preferable not to use the space storage in the type cases. On the other hand, not everyone, at least in a craft environment, will be used to standing at a cabinet workstation to set type. (The practice has a great deal to recommend it, however: the compositors in the old shops preferred to work that way.)
However, to the best of my knowledge, there were no standard storage practices beyond the two mentioned above. Sometimes, a shop would have special cases for spaces and quads (including copper and brass) for each point size. These cases were small enough to be easily carried around.
In some shops, though, when a portable assortment of spaces was wanted, small piles of each were merely dumped on a piece of paper. There was a lot of improvisation. One famous fine-press printer used muffin tins.
The larger spaces and quads for the larger display sizes might be kept in galleys.
I believe that, at least in larger shops, it was common for coppers, brasses, and nonstandard spaces to be stored separately, and handed out to each compositor as needed for a given job. The compositor would be responsible for returning them when the job was done.
KEEPING SPACES IN ORDER IN YOUR SHOP
The real problem with keeping spaces in order is keeping the thinner lead spaces sorted out: 3-to-em, 4-to-em, 5-to-em, and sometimes thinner ones at larger sizes. The larger ones can be easily sorted by sight, and the brass and copper spaces by color. (Copper is reddish; brass is goldish.)
The only complication is if your shop has oddball Monotype spaces that were distributed from a Monotype Composition Caster setting. (There are a lot of these at MCBA.)
The real secret to keeping these thinner spaces in order is using them properly in the first place. This means using as few of them as possible, and, when you use one, always use a given width (4-to-em, three-to-em, brass, copper, etc.) for a specific reason, and never use two spaces when one will do. The details of this are covered in “Using Spaces and Quads,” below.
The reason for using a space of a given width will usually be proper spacing between words. A given font will be best spaced by using, in general, either 3-to-em or 4-to-em spaces between words. So when you’re distributing your type, that will tell you what most of the word spaces will be.
You’ll switch to thinner spaces to reduce the visual space between words. So when you’re distributing your type, and you come to one of those, situations, you’ll know to check for a word space that is smaller than the standard word space used in that job.
You’ll also, of course, have to be alert for variations made in order to fit a tight line or space out a loose one.
When filling out empty space on a line, as after a short line at the end of a paragraph, use as many three-em quads as will fit, then place the next-largest width that will fit, then the next, and so on. This way, you’ll never use more than one of any space smaller than a 2-em quad. Never use two spaces when one will do.
Hopefully, your memory of the spacing decisions you made while setting the type will help you sort out the spaces when distributing it. (That’s another reason for distributing your type promptly.)
It’s easy to use spaces like this when your spaces are in good order and accurately sorted, so that you can lay your hand immediately on whatever space you want at the moment.
USING SPACES AND QUADS
The basics of when to use each kind of space and quad (3-to-em, en, em, etc.) are covered above, in the sections on the common spaces and quads. This section is about the actual tasks that make up much of the compositor’s work.
The fundamental principle is this: The spaces and quads you use should be as few and as large as possible. This greatly simplifies setting and distribution, and makes for a securer lockup.
The more pieces there are in the assembled form, the spongier it will be, and the more variation there will be between the tightness of the lines. Using more pieces than necessary makes it harder to get a solid lockup, and to get even pressure on all the lines and components. The looser the type is, and the smaller the pieces, the more likely it is to fall apart or get disordered when it is being moved around. It will also be more likely that type will fall out of a locked-up form, or be picked up by a sticky inked roller during printing. Where the pressure on lines of text is not even, the tighter lines may bow up a little; when these lines are pressed down and released by press rollers, individual types may work up so as to give a heavier impression than the rest, or spaces may work up so that they print.
Therefore, when a skilled compositor is, for instance, adding word space to justify a line, his first resort is not to add, say, a copper space to the existing word spaces. Instead, he will remove the existing word spaces and replace them with larger ones. (There’s more to it than that—see the following sections.)
It’s illusory to believe that you’re saving time and effort by adding extra spaces instead of replacing smaller spaces by larger ones.
Any time saved that way will be lost again, and perhaps more than lost, when you distribute the type. Not to mention the possibility of serious loss of time (and quality), due to accidents while moving the type around, or during lockup, and possibly replacing lines of type that fall out.
Tweezers and bodkin are tools that make it much easier to get the best spacing in justified lines. Always have them handy. Tipping a space forward with the bodkin, and then picking it out, is often less likely to damage type than is grappling the space out with tweezers. The same applies to removing characters, but of course you should avoid touching the face of the character with either bodkin or tweezers, since lead is much softer than steel.
When inserting copper and brass spaces, pull up one or both of the spaces to either side of where the copper/brass space will go. Place the copper space between them (or alongside one of them), and insert them all together into the line. This prevents bending the spaces. Bent spaces may compress when the type is locked up, leaving the line loose so that type may fall out when the form is moved, or be pulled up by the sticky ink rollers.
The need for precise adjustment of word spacing is why it is important to have spaces accurately sorted, so you can lay your hands on a 4-to-em or 5-to-em space whenever you want one, without having to further interrupt your flow of thought, and without wasting time. Time spent searching for the right space adds up quickly. So does aggravation and distraction.
How tight to make the line?
Each line should be set so the type is tight enough that it won’t fall forward if the composing stick is tilted. (Make this test with a lead or slug in front of the line.) You shouldn’t be bending spaces while trying to jam them into the line: if you are, that probably means that you should use a slightly smaller space somewhere else (e.g., a 5-to-em space instead of a 4-to-em space). Ideally, all lines should be equally tight, so they compress equally when the type is locked up.
Filling out a short line (e.g., paragraph end):
For this, it’s simple to apply the principle of as few spaces as possible, as large as possible.
For example, when adding spaces to fill out a short line, insert 3-em quads until no more will fit, then use the next size that will fit (no more than one will usually be necessary), and then the next size that fits, and so on until the line is justified.
Put the largest quad/space at the end of the line, up against the right side of the composing stick. Then put another quad/space of that size, or the next largest size that fits, up against the type. This prevents type from falling while you are spacing out the line, and prevents small spaces from falling out at the end of the line.
Keep the smallest spaces all together in one spot. (Or use one or two larger spaces—perhaps en spaces—to separate two groups of the smallest spaces, if that makes it easier to insert spaces, especially coppers and brasses, without bending them.) This simplifies distribution. I like to put the small spaces close to the type (with the one big space between them and the type), so the big spaces that can stand on their own are toward the outside of the line where the danger of spilling is greatest.
Here is a depiction of a short line of type with spaces added to fill the measure, by the method described above. The spaces, from the left, are: 3-em quad, 5-to-em space, brass space, copper space, en space, 2-em quad, two 3-em quads.
(Screen resolution doesn’t do this justice.
Take my word for the copper space.)
A 4-to-em space was used between the words, since the characters on either side of the word space are both slants.
Justifying a full line of text:
“Justifying” type means spacing it out so that the words fill the full width of the column, creating even margins at both sides.
In full lines of justified type, when adjusting spacing to justify a line, keep the word spacing as consistent as possible throughout the line. Uneven word spacing within a line is highly visible in print. Techniques for spacing are detailed below—first for adding space, then for reducing space.
Once again, use as few spaces as possible to fill a given area. For example, instead of adding a copper space after a 4-to-em space, try replacing the 4-to-em space with a 3-to-em space.
Adding word space to justify:
Adding word space to justify a line should be done by replacing existing word spaces with slightly larger ones, not by inserting brass or copper spaces. Start with spots where word space can be added with little visual impact: the spots where the largest sections of letters directly abut the word space. Examples are full-height verticals, such as ‘d b’. Then add space where, e.g., half-height verticals abut the word space, such as ‘h m’. The third-to-last spots to add space are where rounds abut the word space, e.g., ‘o c’. The second-to-last is where slants abut the space: ‘y W’. Only as a last resort should space be added where a small punctuation mark, like a period, comma, or quotation mark, abuts the word space.
When all these options are used up, add space as evenly as possible at all the word spaces. The maximum space will depend on the typeface, size, and leading, but anything larger than an en space is too much—except for short measures, where occasional wide spacing is an unavoidable tradeoff. Too much space is worse than too little, but spacing so tightly that words are not easily distinguished is unacceptable.
Letterspacing with copper, or even brass spaces is also a last resort, but if used carefully and very sparingly, it can gain a small amount of space, which is sometimes enough to prevent having to reset previous lines. Follow the same principles as for increasing word space: add spaces first before large punctuation (such as colons, semicolons, or exclamation points), then between full-height lower-case verticals. There should always (except in very narrow measures) be a better solution than adding letterspace in more than a few spots in a line where the characters come close together. (Even in very narrow measure, major letterspacing should only be resorted to when resetting and re-spacing will not help.)
If necessary, a good typographer will go back and respace earlier lines as needed to bring up or push down a word or part of a word in order to justify a problem line without excessively tight or loose spacing.
Tightening word space to justify:
When tightening word space to justify a line, proceed in the opposite sequence as for adding space: start by reducing word spaces that abut punctuation, then those that abut slants, and so on.
Never remove all the physical space between words, no matter how open the shape of the letters before and after the word space.There should be at least one sixth of an em space.That’s a brass space in 6-point type, and more in display sizes (over 14-point).This is true even if, for instance, there is a period before the space and a capital T after.The eye and brain need an unambiguous break in order to recognize a word space without stopping to interpret, so there has to be some definite clearance on a vertical axis between the right extreme of the character preceding the space and the left extreme of the character following, no matter how much white space there is elsewhere on either side of the space.
Removing all the horizontal space between open characters is a mistake that designers sometimes make, when they have little real knowledge, don’t read much print themselves, think that chance-met scraps of information are enough to make them experts, and happen to have run into some discussion of visual word spacing by someone who knows no more then they do. The quirk may even be built into digital typefaces designed by type designers who know less than they think they do.
You can get away with this in “artistic” pieces, where no-one will read the text if it is of any length, and those who notice will either believe that it must be alright because it is “artistic,” or think that anyone who makes such a mistake isn’t worth wasting breath on to criticize.
But if you do this in high-end commercial work of any kind, you will soon be faced with clients who insist that the mistake be corrected. I’ve seen this happen regularly in advertising and corporate communications work. It will be even more obvious in book work. Those clients will be right, and they will get their way because it’s easy to find another typographer: the kind of “typographer” who leaves out word spaces is a dime a dozen.
When something looks wrong enough to enough people to regularly generate complaints from people who aren’t out to prove that that they are typographers, and who aren’t echoing some passing fad of pseudogrammar, that’s a pretty good indicator of bad typography.
Other common spacing issues:
Word spacing will also have to be adjusted to avoid widows, orphans, bad word breaks, ladders, rivers, and unsupported short words.
A widow is a line containing only a short string of letters, left over at the end of a paragraph. An orphan is a widow on the top line of a page. Widows and orphans must be avoided at all costs. Typography is cruel.
A ladder is a column of hyphens (or similarly small characters, such as small punctuation) at successive line ends. A river is a group of word spaces at roughly the same horizontal position in successive lines, forming a visible pattern that is noticed by the reader. An unsupported word is a word of one to three letters at the end of the second-to-last line of a paragraph that looks like it’s about to fall into the blank space below.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It is possible, with practice, to learn to anticipate, to some useful extent, all of these problems, allowing you to adjust spacing as you’re setting a line to avoid go to avoid trouble at the line end.
You should also monitor your work as you go. In addition to proofreading each line before you justify it, keep an eye out for developing ladders and rivers, and look at how much copy is left in the paragraph to see if a widow is a possibility. Also look ahead for problems such as longish words that can’t be broken at a line end, like ‘through,’ or ‘strangely’ (two-letter breaks are forbidden), ‘cocktail’ or ‘arsenal.’ Or your client’s name.
Learning to see the best spots to tighten or add space, and the best opportunities to gain or lose words in another line to help justify a problem line, is also essential for good work in digital typesetting. The only difference is that it’s a whole lot easier to make these adjustments with digital type.
Other points about spacing:
There are cases in which legibility will be improved by inserting a copper space may be inserted between punctuation and words. Where this is the case, the extra space won’t be noticed by the reader. (Conversely, if the reader will notice, then it isn’t needed and would be a fault.) Examples are: on either side of an en- or em- dash (especially where a dash is next to a round, since both characters print right up to the edge of the type at about the same height), before a colon or semicolon, or between a quote mark and a capital letter that fills the full width at the top, like a W or Y. Copper (or even brass) spaces may also be used in in such places to add space when justifying a line.
In some languages, editorial style calls for narrow spaces around punctuation in certain situations. Readers in those languages expect this. English does not use spaces around punctuation in this way. It is a mistake to violate common typographic practices in any language.
SPACES & QUADS—OTHER WIDTHS
ODD MONOTYPE SPACES
Text composed on Monotype Composition Casters is justified by casting spaces to whatever width is needed to justify each line with equal space between words. These spaces are not limited to the standard spacing widths, and can vary in very small increments, typically one eighteenth of an em. This results in all kinds of oddball widths (e.g., 7/18 of an em). (Monotype Composition Casters are the Monotype machines used for setting text, as opposed to the Monotype machines used to make single characters for hand composition.)
These oddball spaces can be extremely common in shops where Composition Caster settings have been distributed in cases for re-use. (This includes MCBA.) When found, the oddballs should go in the hellbox. When distributing Monotype settings for use as hand type, the spaces should all go in the hellbox (or be sent back to the people who set the type). Checking each space to see if it is a standard width is not likely to be worth the trouble.
QUOTATIONS (“QUOTATION QUADS”)
Quotations are intermediate in size and function between quads and metal furniture. Typically, they are partly hollowed at bottom and/or top. In shops that use them, they are stored separately from spaces, since they are not needed for every job. They don’t necessarily have to match the size of any type being set.
Quotations are used to avoid the use of large numbers of smaller quads—this saves time and reduces the danger of pieing type. They are more accurate and give a solider lockup than wood. They are also lighter than solid quads and slugs, more space-flexible than larger furniture, and more accurate than wood furniture.
Southward, in Practical Printing (1884), p. 60, writes: “Quotations are large hollow quadrats, and used sometimes in the place of metal furniture. They appear to have been at first used to justify side-notes or quotations in book work, and were called ‘quotation quadrats.’ This use has long since passed away, and they are now simply hollow quadrats, used for filing up considerable spaces at the beginning and ends of chapters in book work, and also in job work. Formerly, they were cast to two sizes, broad (4 em) and narrow (3 em).” In his time, says Southward, quotations ranged in size from 18-point 2-, 3-, and 4-em, to “four-line pica 4 x 6 em” (which I take to mean 48-point 6-em, or possibly 96-point 3-em). The range includes 1.5- and 2.5-em quads in some sizes.
Southward also notes, on p. 8, that “In founts of large type quotations are also included.”
I have also seen odd-sized quads, in large display sizes, that were cast in quantity on a Monotype machine. Their dimensions (in points) included 60 x 24, 60 x 36, 48 x 36, 72 x 48, and 72 x 60.
A.A. Stewart, in The Printer’s Dictionary, 1912, has the following: “Patent Space—Type spaces of the thickness of two five-to-em spaces; thicker than the three-to-em and thinner than the en-quad. This space is common in 12-point and larger sizes, but the name is not now often employed.”
I haven’t seen this mentioned anywhere else, and am not clear on how such spaces would be useful. Perhaps it was one of those technical innovations, like “self-justifying” hand type, that didn’t last for long.
2-PT. LEAD SPACE
You will occasionally see these in cases. They are cut from two-point leading, not cast, so they have no nicks. But they were specially manufactured, so they are neater, more regular, and more accurate than pieces cut on a slug cutter.
I’ve also seen a 2’ wide 36’ space with a nick.
1-PT. LEAD SPACES
You may occasionally see these. They were made on a Monotype Super Caster machine, using an attachment that cut them from strips of 1-point leading cast by the machine. They therefore had no nicks. They are less common than 2-point lead spaces, since they can only be fragile, less accurate, and less durable substitutes for the common 1-point brass space.
I’ve seen these fairly often in old type cases at MCBA. I’ve never heard or read much about their use. They’re bits of paper cut very accurately to the size of a copper space. At least some of those I’ve seen are no thinner than a copper space.
A.A. Stewart, in Typesetting (1919) writes: “When metal thin spaces are not at hand it may be necessary to resort to pieces of paper or thin card. Spaces of this kind should be used only in exceptional cases and not at all as a common practice. There should be never more than a few pieces of paper used in justifying a line. A safe rule for the apprentice, when he thinks he cannot make his line come right without some such expedient, is to ask an experienced compositor, who will usually show him how to justify without the paper.”
So it seems that they were meant to be used only if no copper or brass spaces were available. I’d guess that some shop owners were just too cheap to keep an adequate supply of coppers and brasses on hand
OTHER SPACING TERMS
“THICK SPACE,” “MID(DLE) SPACE,” “THIN SPACE,” “HAIR SPACE”
These terms show up frequently in old metal type literature. They’re also found, if you look, in digital type, in InDesign and Unicode. However, their exact meaning is usually problematic, and they should therefore be avoided (except for technical font work involving Unicode). In general, it’s best to think and speak of spaces in terms of fractions/multiples of an em, or, for the narrower spaces in digital type, in terms of “units” (below).
Moxon (1683) mentions thick and thin spaces, but does not, as I recall, give sizes for them, though on p. 99 (Typothetae ed.), in a discussion of forging punches, he seems to imply that a thick space is one quarter of an em.
Johnson, in Typographia (1824), vol. II, p. 66, writes that thick spaces are 3-to-em, middle spaces 4-to-em, and thin spaces 5-to-em, while the hair space is finer than any of these, “cast remarkably thin.”
Southward, in Practical Printing (1884), p. 8, writes: “Spaces are of four kinds, and called respectively, thick, middle, thin, and hair spaces.” He states that thick spaces are 3-to-em, middle spaces 4-to-em, and thin spaces 5-to-em. “The hair spaces,” he says, “average eight to the em, but range between seven and ten, according to the size of the body.”
A.A. Stewart, in Typesetting (1919) writes: “The thickness of hair spaces varies according to the size of the type; the name is given generally to any cast space thinner than the 5-to-em.”
Thus, at least for the 19th and early 20th century, you might take the following as rules of thumb for the meanings: Thick space, 3-to-em; middle (or “mid”) space, 4-to-em; thin space, 5-to-em; hair space, anything smaller than 5-to-em.
However, the 1907 Barnhart Bros. & Spindler catalog refers to copper & brass spaces as “thin spaces.” Stewart (Typesetting) refers to them as “copper-thins, and brass-thins.”
For hair spaces and thin spaces (and other special spaces) in InDesign and Unicode, see the article Special Spaces in Unicode and InDesign in the Digital section of this site.
In many text fonts, both metal and digital, the widths of the figures (numbers) are set uniformly at one en, so as to facilitate setting tabular matter. In such contexts, the width of an en may be referred to as a “figure space.”
(Note that OpenType font technology now makes it possible create fonts that allow a choice between tabular and proportional widths for figures. Unicode and InDesign have both figure spaces and en spaces. For these, see the article Special Spaces in Unicode and InDesign in the Digital section of this site.)
The term “unit,” as a measure of space or width, is important for both digital type and Monotype hot-metal type. A unit is always a fraction of an em. Which fraction of an em depends on the particular technology, or the particular software, you are using.
The unit is not a fixed value in any system; its value is relative to the value of an em at whatever point size you are using at the moment. In other words, the unit is a relative measure, not an absolute one. It is relative to the point size, which determines the value of an em. For any given unit system you can find the value of a unit in points, at a given point size, with the following formula: point size divided by the number of units in an em.
The Monotype Composition Caster used a unit of one eighteenth of an em. Every character and every space the machine cast was a whole number of units in width. This made it easy for the machine to justify lines to exactly even widths, by calculating the number of units in the measure, the number of units taken up by the characters, and the number of units that had to be filled up by each of the spaces in the line. Spaces were cast to the required number of units, disregarding standard space sizes. (See “Odd Monotype Spaces,” above.) (I don’t know if all the Monotype machines used the same unit, or if any of them could cut things finer than an eighteenth.)
Eighteen was a magic number for typography in the twentieth century. A system based on eighteen, or one of its multiples, yields mainly numbers that are divisible by two or three, or by their multiples. I would guess that it was this that made it feasible to build an analog computer—that is, a mechanical computer like the Monotype Composition Caster system—that would function for setting type.
Perhaps more importantly, a base-18 system made it easier to do the needed calculations with a proportion wheel, a hand calculator, or in your head. Some of us did such calculations very, very frequently. (In the 80s, I had a table of unit values for 54ths of an em on a pencil holder on my desk.)
For more about units in digital typography, see the article “Units”: A Fundamental Measure of Space And Width.
MORE ABOUT EMS AND ENS
“EM” and “EN”: basis and background
“Em” and “en” are related only in a loose conceptual way to the widths of the letters “M” and “N”: M is sort of square; N is sort on half an M.
I doubt very much that there was ever any closer connection than this; if there ever was, it was centuries ago, far too long ago to be relevant to practical typography. Don’t expect the widths of the letters to correspond to the widths of the spaces—in any technology.
You may occasionally run into sources that define the em in a bass-ackwards fashion, as being equivalent to the width of two zeros. This is based on the common practice of making figures one en in width (see “En Quad,” above), so there were two figures to an em. Some obsolete computerized typesetting technologies, notably Quark, defined the em width based on the figure width, rather than vice versa. This had some strange consequences when using condensed fonts and certain specialized fonts, since it meant that the em wasn’t the square of the type size, which destroyed the normal proportion of space to type size. This sort of thing is why Quark is obsolete.
Em/En auditory confusion, and terms meant to avoid it
“Em” and “en” sound very much alike. People who worked with metal type all day every day soon learned their way around this, but there was never an elegant linguistic solution to the problem. What worked for the people who worked together in a given shop was all that was needed.
In practice, when you refer, in speech, to an em or an en, you always have to enunciate very, very clearly to distinguish eM from eN.
Among metal type people, an em was sometimes called a “mutton,” to audibly distinguish the name from “en.” This works.
However, some people carried the idea too far, shortening “mutton” to “mutt.” This defeats the purpose, since “mutt” sounds as much like the more common word “nut” as “em” sounds like “en.“ I have even heard people who should have known better refer to an eM space as a “mutt,” and an eN space as a “nut,” which brings back all the original confusion.
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